E-mail is a double-edged sword when it comes to productivity. The benefits of e-mail as a communications tool can easily be lost in the sea of nonsense that floods most inboxes, though – and that is after the spam is filtered out.
Google is introducing a new experimental feature, called ‘Priority Inbox’, aimed at helping Gmail users sort it all out. The search giant has developed a complex set of algorithms that can analyse a user’s email behaviour, and rank emails depending on their perceived importance.
Users who switch on the priority inbox function will see their messages separated in to three categories: “important and unread,” “starred” and “everything else.”
“Important” messages are judged to be the most significant, and sit at the top of your Gmail window. Next is the “starred” area, the messages you say are important.
Finally, “everything else” includes those messages that can probably be dealt with later, or completely ignored — the ones that aren’t quite spam, but don’t need to clutter up your screen or your brain right now.
Google said that its email algorithms analysed a variety of factors, including a user’s most frequently emailed contacts, and the number of other people copied in to the same message.
The search company also said that the content of the email was also analysed to ascertain its importance. Google already “scans” emails to deliver targeted advertising, and to filter out messages that could be considered spam.
Keith Coleman, Google’s product management director, told me in an interview that Google has been working to solve the e-mail overload problem for the better part of a decade.
“Features like Priority Inbox were in the prerelease version of Gmail but were not ready for the public,” Mr. Coleman said. “We finally figured out how to organize and categorize e-mail in a simple and intuitive way using three different criteria.”
Surprisingly, Mr. Coleman said that one of the tools put to use in the new inbox organization is taken from the programming and algorithms used to categorize mail as spam.
He said Gmail looks for terms and people that you categorize as important, or not, and decides whether those messages make it into your priority inbox accordingly.
“Priority inbox is like your personal assistant, helping you focus on the messages that matter without requiring you to set up complex rules,” wrote Doug Aberdeen, a senior software engineer at Google, on the company’s blog.
“Gmail has always been pretty good at filtering junk mail in to the ‘spam’ folder, but today, in addition to spam, people get a lot of mail that isn’t outright junk but isn’t very important.”
Google said that its priority inbox feature would be rolled out across all Gmail and Google Apps accounts over the next couple of weeks.
Gmail, which was launched in April 2004, stunned internet users by offering an unprecedented 1GB of free email storage. The service now has an estimated 146 million monthly users. [Gmail’s Blog via Reuters and ArsTechnica]